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Reconceptualizing Procedural Knowledge

Author(s): Jon R. Star

Source: Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, Vol. 36, No. 5 (Nov., 2005), pp.
Published by: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
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Accessed: 27-08-2018 02:58 UTC

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Research Commentary

Reconceptualizing Procedural Knowledge

Jon R. Star, Michigan State University

In this article, I argue for a renewed focus in mathematics education research on proce-
dural knowledge. I make three main points: (1) The development of students' proce-
dural knowledge has not received a great deal of attention in recent research; (2) one
possible explanation for this deficiency is that current characterizations of concep-
tual and procedural knowledge reflect limiting assumptions about how procedures are
known; and (3) reconceptualizing procedural knowledge to remedy these assumptions
would have important implications for both research and practice.

Key words: Algorithm; Conceptual knowledge; Flexibility; Heuristic; Procedural


The respective roles of procedural and conceptual knowledge in students' learning

of mathematics continue to be a topic of animated conversation in the mathematics
education community. As a prominent mathematics educator (Sowder, 1998) noted
several years ago, "Whether developing skills with symbols leads to conceptual
understanding, or whether the presence of basic understanding should precede
symbolic representation and skill practice, is one of the basic disagreements"
between the opposing sides of the so-called math wars. Among those who argue
against current reform efforts, there is a perception that procedural knowledge acqui-
sition has been de-emphasized and deemed less important than conceptual knowl-
edge, with dire consequences for student learning (e.g., Budd et al., 2005;
Mathematically Correct, n.d.). Although some reformers might disagree with this
characterization, others are quite explicit in their belief that procedural knowledge
should play a secondary, supporting role to conceptual knowledge in students'
learning of mathematics (e.g., Pesek & Kirschner, 2000). Some go so far as to state
that an instructional focus on procedural knowledge, rather than conceptual knowl-
edge, leads to the development of isolated skills and rote knowledge, and that "a
rush for procedural skill will actually do more harm than good" (Brown, Seidelmann,
& Zimmermann, n.d.).
This issue has deep roots in our field (e.g., Brownell, 1945; Hiebert & Lefevre,
1986; Skemp, 1976); the current math wars indicate that we still have not reached
consensus on the respective roles of procedural knowledge and conceptual knowl-

Thanks to Heather Hill, Deborah Ball, Magdalene Lampert, Jack Smith, Colleen
Seifert, James Hiebert, and several anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on
earlier versions of this article.

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Jon R. Star 405

edge in student l
this topic now t
procedural skill a
nature of the con
First, I claim tha
learning are prim
deal of attention
Although we wan
appropriately" (N
about what this
Second, I claim t
edge is that cur
conceptual know
gations of these c
edge-and making
cations for both



A survey of journals and publicly available databases indicates that the

opment of students' procedural knowledge has not been a recent focus of r
in mathematics education. A key word search of the Educational Res
Information Center (ERIC) database for procedural fluency, a term r
promoted by the National Research Council (2001) in Adding It Up, yield
articles. Perhaps given the newness of the term, this void may not be surp
ERIC also indicates, however, that the ratio of journal articles in mathem
education that use the terms conceptual knowledge or conceptual unders
to those that use the terms procedural knowledge or procedural skill is ap
mately 4:1. Similarly, an ERIC key word search of the past 10 years
Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME) for procedure o
rithm yielded six articles, only four of which were even peripherally rel
students' knowledge of procedures. Perhaps most convincingly, of the a
mately 100 empirical articles related to the development of K-12 students
ematical content knowledge published over the past decade in the JRME,
11 did the researchers carefully investigate the development of students'
edge of procedures. Although this survey is far from exhaustive, it sugge
the ways that students come to know, use, and understand mathematical
dures have not been a prominent focus of mathematics education research
least 10 years.
Procedures were widely studied in the 1980s, when many studies focu
students' procedural errors (e.g., Brown & VanLehn, 1980; Matz, 1980). In
tion, a large amount of literature on procedural skill acquisition exists in c
psychology (e.g., Anderson, Fincham, & Douglass, 1997), and the relation

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406 Reconceptualizing Procedural Knowledge

between procedural and conceptual knowledge continues to

in developmental psychology (e.g., Rittle-Johnson, Siegle
for at least the past 10 years, mathematics education res
avoided detailed and careful studies of the development of
Why is that the case? It is perhaps no coincidence that
research on procedures has occurred in a time of political
educators. As alluded to above, the development of proce
in K-12 instruction have been particularly contentious is
which might explain some researchers' reluctance to pur
tion, and political reasons notwithstanding, some researc
procedural knowledge should not be a focus of research o
because of a perception that skills are no longer of sufficie
tance (compared with conceptual knowledge) to justify st
primarily designed to improve procedural knowledge. Oth
that the widespread availability of technological tools has
the need to study pedagogical and cognitive issues associa
of procedural skills. There is evidence, however, that ma
tors continue to believe that procedural skill plays a fun
in students' learning of mathematics (Ballheim, 1999; Nati
2001). Note that I am not claiming that procedural knowle
than conceptual knowledge. Rather, I claim that both are
students' mathematical proficiency and thus merit carefu
I propose a complementary explanation for the lack of m
research on the development of procedural knowledge-nam
acterizations of conceptual and procedural knowledge refle
unfounded assumptions about how concepts and procedur


The widespread use of the terms conceptual knowledge and procedur

edge can be attributed to the seminal book edited by Hiebert (1986), pa
the introductory chapter by Hiebert and Lefevre (1986). They define c
knowledge as
knowledge that is rich in relationships. It can be thought of as a connected web o
edge, a network in which the linking relationships are as prominent as the discr
of information. Relationships pervade the individual facts and propositions so
pieces of information are linked to some network. (pp. 3-4)

Procedural knowledge is defined as follows:

One kind of procedural knowledge is a familiarity with the individual symbo
system and with the syntactic conventions for acceptable configurations of
The second kind of procedural knowledge consists of rules or procedures for
mathematical problems. Many of the procedures that students possess pro
chains of prescriptions for manipulating symbols. (pp. 7-8)

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Jon R. Star 407

A close look at t
as knowledge of
Rather, it is defi
ularly the richne
is a critical depar
tion of conceptu
connected knowle
slope) or concept
speaking, knowle
1989): The conne
or they may be
knowledge of do
(Gelman, Star, &
between a 6th g
point is that ma
(1986) definition
edge: that which
What about pro
term essentially
conventions, and
edge in implicit
tionships presen
procedure is conn
is superficial; it
is a significant d
are many differe
a procedure vari
that if one execu
error, one is gua
what Hiebert and
dural knowledge;
inate. But other
general and mor
Heuristic proce
(Schoenfeld, 197
wise choices can
educators who s
knowledge are re

1 Deep-level knowled
useful for the perfor
rote learning, inflex
associated with comp
Ferguson-Hessler, 1

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408 Reconceptualizing Procedural Knowledge

dures, it is reasonable to depict algorithmic knowledge as typ

compiled, or rote (Anderson, 1992). Heuristics, however, a
the Hiebert and Lefevre definition does not account for them.2
Hiebert and Lefevre's (1986) definitions of procedural and conceptual knowl-
edge were quite influential in providing mathematics educators with a well-defined
terminology to refer to students' knowledge of mathematics. However, the preceding
discussion illustrates that these terms suffer from a entanglement of knowledge type
and knowledge quality (De Jong & Ferguson-Hessler, 1996; Star, 2000) that makes
their use somewhat problematic, especially for procedural knowledge. The term
conceptual knowledge has come to encompass not only what is known (knowledge
of concepts) but also one way that concepts can be known (e.g., deeply and with
rich connections). Similarly, the term procedural knowledge indicates not only what
is known (knowledge of procedures) but also one way that procedures (algorithms)
can be known (e.g., superficially and without rich connections).
If knowledge type and knowledge quality have become conflated, then what
would it mean to disentangle them? Consider the 2 x 2 matrix shown in Table 1.
The matrix suggests that for both knowledge types (knowledge of concepts and
knowledge of procedures), one can have knowledge that is either superficial or deep.
The current usage of the terms conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge
makes it difficult to consider (or even name) the knowledge that belongs in the deep
procedural knowledge cell.3 Deep procedural knowledge would be knowledge of
procedures that is associated with comprehension, flexibility, and critical judgment
and that is distinct from (but possibly related to) knowledge of concepts. Separating
these independent characteristics of knowledge (type versus quality) allows for the
reconceptualization of procedural knowledge as potentially deep.

Table 1
Types and Qualities of Procedural and Conceptual Knowledge
Knowledge quality
Knowledge type.
Superficial Deep

Procedural usage of 9
procedural knowledge
Conceptual 9 Common usage of
conceptual knowledge

2 Hiebert and Lefevre (1986) acknowledge that their definitions of procedu

edge do not account for heuristics. They write, "No sooner than we propose
and procedural knowledge and attempt to clarify them, we must back up and ac
nitions we have given and the impressions they convey will be flawed in s
not all knowledge fits nicely into one class or the other. Some knowledge lies at
strategies for solving problems, which themselves are objects of thought, ar
3 The cell for superficial conceptual knowledge was alluded to in the preced
tual knowledge. Knowledge of concepts certainly involves relationships, but
necessarily deep or rich. A learner's initial knowledge of a concept is typic
fragile, but over time the relationships can deepen and become richer.

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Jon R. Star 409

What does deep

view of procedur
1990s (e.g., Davi
VanLehn propose
dure, meaning kn
writes of knowle
steps, the goals
which the procedu
ronment or situ
inherent in the e
dural knowledge
My own work o
concrete and rec
press). When stud
have available a ve
combining like te
sides. Yet despite
tion solvers have
maximally efficie
ibility to be an i
Flexibility is a n
relatively simple
3(x + 1) = 10; (b)
each of these equ
standard algorith
not be the standa
strategy is quite
or easiest to do, t
tions, or the one
among the probl
of procedural ac
likely has no reco
cient solutions or
ible solver-one
way through th
overpracticed, to
goals. I consider
Flexibility is not
conceptual and p

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410 Reconceptualizing Procedural Knowledge



Reconceptualizing procedural knowledge as described above h

implications for both research and practice. First and foremost, recogn
tence of deep procedural knowledge suggests the need for research
how it develops, and what its relationship is to other types of desired
knowledge. Broadening the definition of procedural knowledge could
dures back onto the research agenda of mathematics educators-inc
on both "sides" of the math wars. Second, accompanying these new
research is a need to broaden current ways of studying and assessin
knowledge. Methods for assessing students' procedural knowledge
impoverished at present, with procedural knowledge often measured si
a student can or cannot do. Research methods can instead focus on how students

can and cannot do and on the character of the knowledge they have (including its
depth), which supports their ability to perform procedures. And third, deep proce-
dural knowledge should be considered an instructional goal at all levels of schooling.
If so, additional research would be needed to develop and evaluate instructional
interventions and curricula that might achieve this goal, as well as to determine the
kinds of content knowledge for teaching that could support the development of deep
procedural knowledge.


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Jon R. Star, 513 Erickson Hall, College of Education, Michigan State University, East Lansing

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